Evidence-Based Frameworks and Strategies for Keeping Students Engaged

Keeping students engaged in their learning throughout an entire semester is a challenge that exists across all disciplines and modalities. Though the ways in which you implement strategies for increasing student engagement might vary because of these factors, the good news is that the underlying principles remain the same. Below are some of the key methods and strategies that have emerged as common themes across many studies on the relationships between teaching practices and student engagement.

Foster a Culture of Growth, Trust, and Belonging

Part of a student’s engagement in a course is tied to the affective domain of learning, or a student’s thoughts and feelings about their own learning. Does the student feel like they belong in this learning environment? Are they respected by their peers and the instructor? Do they see their instructor as an ally in the learning journey, or as an adversary?

One aspect of the affective domain is whether an individual has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The Center for Learning Experimentation, Application and Research at the University of North Texas has a great list of growth mindset interventions instructors can implement. It is worth noting, however, that research seems to indicate the effectiveness of these interventions is contingent on the instructor’s mindset as well. Studies have shown that instructors with a greater growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) have smaller racial achievement gaps and inspire more student motivation in their courses.

The affective domain also includes students’ feelings of belonging and trust. While the degree to which you can affect these feelings has limitations, evidence-based practices usually boil down to how you interact with students and facilitate interactions between students. A few examples include using a welcoming tone in your syllabus, modelling inclusive language, and taking the time to get to know your students’ names. Even in asynchronous classes it is important to build trust with your students. For example, you might want to consider using a week-one survey to provide your students with an opportunity to tell you about themselves.

Break Up Lectures & Add Opportunities for Active Learning

When there is a lot of content that needs to be disseminated across the duration of the semester, lectures are a common method for communicating that information quickly and efficiently. But the longer and denser the lecture is, the more instructors risk losing their students along the way due to cognitive load.

One solution is to build pause points into your lectures. Students benefit from structured pauses during lectures as it allows them space to question, process, and reflect on the information that they’ve absorbed. For pre-recorded lectures, the same idea can be achieved by breaking up a long lecture video into multiple short, topical videos (research suggests 6-12 minutes is an ideal length for maintaining student engagement). Fortunately, Kaltura (My Media) makes it very easy to trim and save video clips from right within Canvas.

When adding pauses for students to digest information, it is also beneficial to create opportunities for active learning activities. These activities can be very brief, such as using an anonymous polling tool to check for student understanding during a lecture. For more in-depth active learning, consider making time for small group discussions, written reflections, and other exercises that require students to employ higher order thinking skills. For courses with an asynchronous component, PlayPosit allows instructors to add a variety of engagement activities to pre-recorded lecture videos, while Hypothesis may be useful for incorporating annotation and reflection activities into assigned readings.

Provide Transparency and Support

When a student needs to spend a lot of mental energy figuring out the logistics of how to complete an activity, they have less mental energy left to engage with the course materials themselves. Therefore, transparency and scaffolding are both key elements to designing engaging assignments.

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) framework is designed to help instructors write clear and descriptive instructions for learning materials and assignments. For this framework, lay out the task, purpose, and criteria for each learning activity. If a student knows what they are supposed to do, why they are supposed to do it (how it ties to the course learning outcomes), and how they are going to be assessed, they can go into the activity more confident in their ability to engage with it.

It is common for a student to stop engaging with a course if they feel like they don’t have the means or resources to complete the tasks they’ve been assigned. Proper instructional scaffolding can help counter this issue by bridging some of the cognitive gaps and reducing the number of students that fall through the cracks. For example, if the final assignment in your course is an 8-page research paper, consider breaking up the process into several smaller assignments, such as having students submit their topic, bibliography, and outline at various points throughout the semester. Other ways to provide scaffolding this assignment might include modelling (providing examples of papers that meet the outcomes of the assignment), incorporating instructor or peer feedback for the outline or an early draft of the paper, and providing a robust rubric to guide students on how to meet the assignment outcomes.

Additional Resources

Engaging students is a broad topic that we are only just able to scratch the surface of in this post. Below are some resources for further reading if you’d like to dive in deeper.

Questions?

As always, we welcome you to share your ideas for engaging students by dropping a comment below or emailing us at CATL@uwgb.edu. If you’d like to discuss any of these methods or ideas one-on-one, a CATL member would be happy to meet with you for a consultation as well.

Overlapping Evidence-Based Practices Using Growth Mindset, Trauma-Informed, and Inclusive Teaching

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In Spring 2022 we had talks from three nationally recognized speakers on the following topics: inclusive teaching, promoting growth mindset, and trauma-informed education. Here are the descriptions of and links to each talk.

  • Growth Mindset: As Dr. Angie Bauer argued, we promote learning and resilience and reduce equity gaps when instructors and students embrace the idea that abilities can be changed and developed (Yeager & Dweck, 2020).
  • Inclusive Teaching: Dr. Addy’s IDI keynote shared more about inclusive teaching as “being responsive to the diversity our class and designing learning environments that include all of our students” (Addy, 2021).
  • Trauma-Informed Education: Dr. Mays Imad asserted that learning is promoted through class environments characterized by security or predictability, transparent communication, peer support, shared decisions, promoting student strengths, recognizing diversity and identity, and a sense of purpose (Imad, 2020).

Applying all three approaches to your work may seem daunting, but there are common, evidence-based teaching strategies that achieve all at once. We list them below, along with how they “fit” each category and linked resources.

Pre-Semester or Early in the Semester

Use positive, student-centered syllabus language.

Gather info to learn about students & build rapport.

Align learning outcomes with what you teach & assess.

  • Growth mindset: Provides outcomes clearly; students can self-assess growth 
  • Inclusive: Sets transparent goals for all and links assessment to them 
  • Trauma-informed: Promotes security with transparent communication 
  • Tools & ideas:

Discuss growth mindset and its impacts with students.

During the Semester

Publish rubrics in advance and use them for grading.

Use active and problem-based learning.

Collect and respond to exam wrapper or mid-term feedback.

  • Growth mindset: Models growth mindset as you show openness to change. 
  • Inclusive: Respects all student voices and promotes reflection 
  • Trauma-informed: Promotes reflection on strengths and shared decisions 
  • Tools & ideas:

Use multiple methods of assessment.

Late in Semester or Post-Semester

Consider authentic assessments vs. “final exams."

 

Collect and reflect upon student feedback.

Presentation Recording: Teaching with Zoom (Aug. 24, 2021)

Resources from This Presentation

Training & Support

Other

 

Collaborative Learning Assignments

A lot of students shudder at the thought of group assignments, and with good reason. A poorly-designed group assignment can be painful for the students involved and for the instructor. That being said, well-designed and properly scaffolded group activities have numerous positive effects on student learning. In a quality collaborative learning activity, students develop a deeper student understanding of course content as they learn from and teach their peers. Additionally, these activities can foster a sense of community between students and make academic dishonesty much less likely, as the group setting adds a built-in network of accountability. In terms of academic rigor, group assignments don’t necessarily need to be easier than individual exercises, but students shouldn’t be unequally yoked when they work collaboratively. One way to circumvent this issue is to have teams develop a group charter, like this example group charter (Word document) created by Kate Farley (UWGB) in which students decide on their roles and commitments before beginning a project.

UW-Extension has created a helpful guide that provides more detailed suggestions on how to design group activities, which are summarized below:

  1. Provide purpose. Make sure students know why they are doing the project and why it’s important that they work in groups.
  2. Provide support. Make sure students have the tools they need (technological and otherwise) to complete the project.
  3. Set ground rules with clearly defined milestones and timelines. If you allow students to create the ground rules and milestones for their own group, they are more likely to take ownership of the project and ensure the schedule is doable for them.
  4. Provide opportunities for peer and self-evaluation: Evaluation and reflection helps students effectively hold themselves and each other accountable for the results of their collaboration.

If you’re familiar with the concept these features might sound an awful lot like the teaching with transparency framework. If that concept is unfamiliar to you, you can learn more about it here.

Academic Excellence and Student Expectations

How do you:

  • Create a course load that is challenging but manageable for students?
  • Develop assignments that are engaging and meet the complex needs of the course and modality?
  • Communicate expectations to students on workload, attendance, and participation?
  • Discouraging academic dishonesty, particularly in online settings?

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers, but this page tries to address the central theme to all these questions: academic excellence and student expectations. As you explore the concepts of academic excellence and student expectations, you will find that they are intrinsically linked to the design of course materials and assessments.

Defining Academic Excellence

Our use of the term “Academic Excellence” is informed by the three elements of culturally relevant pedagogy: academic success, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Ayers et al., 2008). Since Dr. Ladson-Billings first introduced this framework in 1995, many studies have extended it, creating shifting and alternative interpretations (Ladson-Billings, 2014). Our interpretation necessarily starts with Ladson-Billings, but is influenced by conversations with practitioners. When instructors promote academic success, they articulate high standards for student learning and discuss how they combine transparency of expectations with practices, approaches, and resources that support student learning. Academic excellence includes, but is not limited to, academic integrity and academic rigor, balanced with compassionate flexibility and resources to support student success. We will break down academic excellence into these three parts and refer to them as such throughout this resources page.

Academic Integrity

The Center for Teaching & Learning at UC Berkely concedes that there is no single perfect definition for academic integrity, but that it generally “entails honesty, responsibility, and openness to both scholarship and scholarly activity”. Fostering academic integrity within your students has its challenges, but it can be handled in a preventative and even positive way. In our fall panel on academic integrity, one of the top suggestions by our panelists was to develop assignments and assessments that require analysis, interpretation, and application of learned information, rather than just rote memorization and recall.

You will find that your personal definition of academic integrity might differ from one in a different discipline, or even from another instructor within your own department. Therefore, it is important to also lay out clear, specific expectations for students at the beginning of the semester on what you consider to be plagiarism, cheating, academic dishonesty, and academic misconduct. Lastly, disclose to your students any any-cheating technologies you plan on using, such as Turnitin, and for what purpose(s) you chose to use them. Academic integrity starts with instructor transparency.

Academic Rigor

Designing quality, substantive assignments and assessments is also related to the idea of academic rigor. Academic rigor is sometimes heavily connotated with the quantity of work assigned in a course when in reality it can also refer to the quality of assignments and assessments. Cathy Davidson, professor at CUNY, addresses this important distinction in an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed and argues that our focus should shift away from the number of exercises or quizzes our course includes and that we should instead “reconsider the meaning, scope, and purpose of the work we do as well as the work we assign”.

Compassionate Flexibility

Maintaining a high standard for academic integrity and academic rigor usually leads to the highest rate of student success when it is tempered with a degree of compassionate flexibility on the part of the instructor. Compassionate flexibility for our students is particularly crucial now with the added complications of financial need, lack of access to the necessary technology, family responsibilities, and health issues (physical or mental), just to name a few. In one qualitative case study of 11 engineering students during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was found that students performed better when faculty “showed compassion and flexibility by adjusting the curriculum and assessment and effectively communicating with students”. To the greatest extreme, compassionate flexibility by an instructor can be the difference between a student surviving—and eventually thriving—in school or dropping out.

Complete flexibility can also be difficult for students to navigate. Unless you’re able to consistently check on their progress, students may find themselves at the end of the semester with many assessments left to complete, and, without the benefit of feedback. Consider what flexibility looks like within your courses, and articulate this transparently to students.

Defining Student Expectations

Communication is paramount in any course—this is especially true at a distance where even incidental contact is absent. Good communication correlates strongly with positive student feedback. The materials and content in your course could be entirely mute if students don’t know fully how you expect they interact with them. Clearly communicating course workload, due dates, etc. go a long way. You want when and how you communicate with students to be authentic to you and your course. Much as you want the materials and activities of a course to align with your course objectives, you want how you communicate to align with you.

Additional Resources